The Deconstruction of Terence Malick in Knight of Cups

The enigma that is Terence Malick has been discussed with film fans ever since his feature debut, Badlands.

The man is a recluse as he avoids interviews, never likes having pictures taken of him, and rarely ever makes public appearances. Many thought we’d never get to see who the man actually was like.

That’s until Terence Malick’s most recent features released.

Those being The Tree of Life, To The Wonder, and Knight of Cups. While both The Tree of Life and To The Wonder can both be studied at great length, the one that intrigues me the most to analyze is Knight of Cups.

What part of Malick’s life does Knight of Cups offer us? It is a study in why Malick has become the recluse that he is.


The film opens with Rick, played by Christian Bale, walking down into a desert. This desert seems almost dead, with little forms of life around it. Rick wanders around, feeling almost lost in it.

This desert is revisited many times throughout the film and is a representation of Rick’s soul. Rick feels barren and that his life has nothing in it. I’ve stated before that Knight of Cups is also a retelling of the poem recited in the film:

“Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.”

I feel that him going into the desert is also an analogy of Rick finally waking up from that slumber. We see in the cold open a getting a glimpse of his past.

After that we see the excess that Rick has put himself in after drinking the metaphorical cup that the prince drank. Rick is with many women, partying, drinking and having fun doing it. After the party is over Rick starts to realizes that he doesn’t like this.

He stops having fun because he is starting to wake up from this dream he’s been living in. Rick realizes there’s a hole in his soul that he wants to fill. So throughout the film he seeks to fill the hole through companionship.

Enter Della, played by Imogen Poots.


She is the first woman Rick has a love affair with on his Malickian journey. Della is a very mysterious woman that seems like more of a front that makes it seem as if Rick is happy being with her.

We infer on that by her wig when Rick meets her. First let’s discuss the situation that Rick is in when he meets Della.

He’s in a room filled with people, but they’re ignoring each other.

They are all in their own little worlds surrounded by technology. Rick sees this woman different from the rest. She has a pink wig on and because of her difference, Rick is immediately attracted to her.

It’s a disguise she puts on to seem different from other people in the room. Then she takes her wig’s a ruse.

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Rick tries to make the best out of it and love her…but he can’t. The breaking point for Rick is when Della says…

“I think you’re weak…”

It’s said in such a robotic tone that many people, including myself, could mistake it as just bad acting. But in reality, it’s showing us how the ruse has finally broken and Rick doesn’t love her anymore.

He finally leaves when she takes him to a party and Rick is back at square one, feeling the emptiness he had earlier.

Rick decides maybe the love and companionship he yearns for is brotherly love. So he meets up with his brother, Barry, played by Wes Bentley.

Rick and Barry talk about the loss of their brother Billy and how that has affected them ever since. Rick realizes that Barry isn’t the type of love his souls needs to be filled because Barry also feels empty.

It seems as if Malick is showing the relationship he had with his own brother, Larry Malick.

Larry was a guitarist who went to study in Spain in the late 1960s. In 1968, Larry intentionally broke his own hands due to pressure over his musical studies.

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Rick thinks the only way to fill the void that both him and Barry feel is to confront their father.

This fails as it turns out they’re all empty and lonely inside.

Terence’s own father Emil, went to Spain to help Larry, but he died shortly after, apparently committing suicide.

In Knight of Cups Barry makes reference to his and Rick’s younger brother who died very young…just like Malick’s other brother, Chris.

This shows how Rick’s loneliness is also attributed with the fact that Malick has had that feeling for most of his life. He, just like Rick, separated himself from others because he never knew how to connect with others, not even to his family.

Both The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups show the discourse with Malick and his father.

Malick, in his eyes, felt alone in the world and with that loneliness, he destroyed relationships with others in his life.

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After failing with yet another relationship,  Rick hangs out with his ex-wife, Nancy, played by Cate Blanchett.

Nancy seems to be everything Rick wants in a woman. She’s kind, attentive, loving and caring…but Rick has been so lost in his delusions of grandeur for so long, he can’t see how perfect he and Nancy are together.

Even though Nancy still loves him, Rick realizes he needs space.

Nancy is a representation of Malick’s first wife, Jill Jakes. While not much is know about Jill, Knight of Cups gives us insight into their relationship by showing how broken Malick felt.

Rick, just like Malick, was too distant with Nancy and that strained their relationship to where it is now.

Rick falls again into excess and starts dating a stripper named Karen, played by Teresa Palmer.

Karen seems to be a right fit for Rick as they get along, have fun riding shopping carts and hanging out. But once they get to Las Vegas, things start to coming to an end.  The overwhelming excess makes Rick sad, since he realizes he’s in a cycle that will never end.

But it seems the cycle might be broken when Rick meets Elizabeth, played by Natalie Portman.


Elizabeth and Rick seem to find solace together but it’s more of a tragic love story.

For one thing, Elizabeth is married and she might be pregnant with Rick’s child. This is to show Rick that this type of love, forbidden love, will only bring him hurt and suffering. So sadly the cycle isn’t broken.

If we’re to learn anything at this point it’s who Della, Helen, Karen, and Elizabeth represent. They all seem to be linked to Malick’s companion after his divorce with Jill Jakes, screenwriter and director Michie Gleason.

Not much is known about Gleason either, but if her filmography says anything about her as a person, she seems very sexually explorative since all 3 of her films are erotic romances.

All of the women that Rick meets, excluding Nancy, could be that Michie and Terence had an on and off again relationship.


These women Rick goes through could mean that everytime Terence broke it off with Michie and came back, she seemed like a new person. However, he soon realized that she was just the same and nothing changed.

Now that Rick in a way has hit rock bottom and can’t seem to find himself and search for what will, in his mind, fill his soul he goes to St. Louis with Barry to confront their father. While that’s happening we see Rick wander through destroyed and burnt up houses.

Clearly this is symbolism for Rick’s family life. It seems that after Billy died Rick’s entire family tore apart and destroyed each other with their emotional anger. After some arguing Rick and Barry forgive their father.

There lies the kick in the butt Rick needed.

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After the confrontation Rick realizes the woman he wants to be with is Isabel Lucas’ character who could be a representation of Malick’s French wife, Michèle Marie Morette, who was played by Olga Kurylenko in To the Wonder.

The ending is a representation of Malick leaving the United States and spending the rest of the 1980s and early 90s in France. This is in a way Malick’s reasoning for his hiatus from filmmaking in between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.

Knight of Cups is the end of the Autobiography of Terrence Malick Trilogy. It’s the film that made me realize how special Malick is.

For the first time in a while, a filmmaker has told us his life, his story, through the power of film.

Malick made a film that every time you watch it, it never feels old or familiar and leaves you with something new each viewing.

While not for everyone I think someday Knight of Cups will be appreciated for the masterpiece it is.



One thought on “The Deconstruction of Terence Malick in Knight of Cups

  1. ellb says:

    I thought Blanchett was representing Michele Morette (the names Blanchett and Morette are close, meaning “little white” and “little black” respectively)… As we know Morette was a tall blonde like Blanchett while Jill Jakes was a small brunette. But not just that. In the movie when Bale says to Blanchett “I’m sorry you had to pay as well”, right after you see a shot of a woman underwater with sunglasses. This woman is Malick’s wife Ecky Malick. I took it as he’s sorry because he left her to marry this other woman. In the swimming pool you see 2 little girls, one is getting into the way of the other, as a metaphor maybe… And then Blanchett(?) is holding the hand of the other girl as if comforting her…
    And Isabel Lucas and Cate Blanchett are somewhat related as there is a “flashback” to Blanchett when we see Lucas walking in the desert.
    I also think Portman’s character is similar to Kurylenko’s character in To The Wonder, the way she bites Bale, she talks about breaking her vows, things that are in TTW. And the dreamlike sequence, in the fog with the little girl could be representing the characters played by Kurylenko and her young daughter…

    Liked by 1 person

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